Getting student wellbeing right: a sector-wide challenge

Posted on 10th Jun 2024 in The Mary Erskine School, ESMS, Community

By Dr Susan Woodshore, RMPS teacher at The Mary Erskine School

In recent years, the headlines have painted a grim picture of our mental health services. With referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) surging by 20%, it's clear that we are facing a mental health crisis in Scotland, and our young people are bearing the brunt of it. It’s clear to me that this alarming situation demands urgent attention, particularly within our schools, where children spend the majority of their time. As educators, we are uniquely positioned to support our students' wellbeing, to make sure that they are not just academically successful but also emotionally resilient and ready to tackle life's challenges.

A young person’s wellbeing is the start and end point of everything else that school does, including the academic side of things. Most teachers now agree that we have moved beyond a traditional model of simply telling children information. The modern school is more about working with students to gain both knowledge and skills. For this to happen our children need to be ok. This means being resilient, self-aware and generally thriving. A young person’s sense of wellbeing must also be nurtured throughout their time in school, and however good our provisions, there is always room to reflect, grow, and learn from others.

In my subject of Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS), we are used to questioning everything, and I am keen to see the term ‘wellbeing’ in a critical light. Wellbeing is not simply a euphemism for ‘mental health’: it needs to reflect our desire to help our young people be supported emotionally and socially too. At its worst, the ‘wellness’ culture is in danger of setting impossibly high standards for our young people, but we want them to be able to face the world and its challenges with bold realism. Here at ESMS, we aim to be critically aware, using an evidence basis for new initiatives that we introduce and passing these skills on to our young people. At the same time, we embrace the positive side of wellbeing – the holistic affirmation that we all want. In 2021 we launched our Wellbeing Policy Committee with a view to harmonise our approach across the Junior and Senior Schools. Our committee looks at initiatives to improve our student guidance, develop new partnerships, provide training and education for our staff and much more, all underpinned by the exciting development of a centre for excellence and research.

The importance the wider education system is placing on wellbeing was never clearer than at our first Scottish schools Wellbeing Conference which took place last week. More than 70 educators from 27 different schools gathered at ESMS to connect, share knowledge about wellbeing in schools, and share strategies and methods which can have an incredibly positive impact on our students. The conference included training from leading experts around being trauma informed, and how to understand a student’s window of tolerance. Our own students also delivered workshops on their lived experience and diverse identifies, and shared tangible examples of how the education system can better support its students. My main take-away from the day was the importance of moving beyond a behaviourist to a person-centred approach to our young people. There was also a focus on staff, and an emphasis that we need to treat each other as people too, and that we can only grow once we begin to recognise our own vulnerabilities.

I am really lucky to work in a School that supports where continuous learning and idea-sharing. I see upskilling as a vital aspect of my role, whether through attending training sessions, going to conferences, or collaborating with colleagues. This culture of commitment to professional development helps us understand the diverse needs of our students, but also our colleagues. For instance, our recent staff autism training attracted over 60 participants. The feedback we received from colleagues was incredible and has allowed us to develop a deeper understanding of neurodiversity within our School community. We are also very pleased that an enthusiastic group of parents has now started the Parents Supporting Neurodiversity (PSN) group, which has already had a positive impact on our dialogue and partnerships.

Stewart’s Melville College achieved the Carnegie Mental Health Award in 2023, and the Mary Erskine School and ESMS Juniors are now working together to achieve the award as ESMS. This award recognises the range of evidence-based wellbeing initiatives and innovations within the school, such as the Smart School Council in the Junior School and the in-house Mental Health Ambassadors programme at the Mary Erskine School. This also provides us with a framework to ensure our practice across every aspect of school life is second to none. Looking to the future, it also gives us a community with which to share best practice.

There is also some incredibly exciting work being done in our Junior School by our head of eLearning, Simon Luxford-Moore, making use of VR headsets to help regulate children’s emotions and decrease time out of class, in some instances from thirty minutes to five minutes.

So, what does it all mean for the future of our children’s education? There is no doubt that the mental health crisis facing our children demands a transformative approach within our schools. It’s clear to me, and everyone here at ESMS, that we need to spend more time focussing on the whole child. The passion and enthusiasm with which my colleagues are embracing this challenge makes for a promising path forward, one which we hope other schools can join us on. By prioritising wellbeing alongside academic achievement, we can nurture resilient, self-aware students equipped to thrive in a complicated world.

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